Friday, December 7, 2012

Destination Antarctica

Sharon K. Schafer
7 Dec 2012

Destination Antarctica

Antarctica is a place that reluctantly allows explorers - visitors, it challenges one’s resolve yet retains an almost mystical power that stirs dreams and ignites the imagination. The continent was suspected to be there over 2000 years ago when Pythagoras, and later Aristotle and their thoughtful peers believed the Earth to be round, and in the interest of divine symmetry, they felt that there must be a unknown land in the southern hemisphere to balance the known in the northern hemisphere. This idea of earthly balance gave rise to the name Antarktos, or Antarctica, which means "opposite Artkos" referencing “Arctos” the bear constellation in the northern sky, and more directly meaning "opposite to the Arctic".

Despite early Greek theory, Antarctica was the last continent to be discovered in the early 19th Century. If anything, early exploration seemed to be proving the Greek scholars wrong with many expeditions sailing entirely past Antarctica indicating that Antarctica DIDN’T exist. In 650 AD, according to Rarotongan legend, a Polynesian navigator named Ui-te-Rangiora sailed so far south that he reached a place where the sea was frozen. Not your average “palm tree and sand beach” Polynesian legend.

By the end of the 19th century, scientific expeditions and seal hunters had explored only fragments of the Antarctica coast, while the interior remained unknown. Explorers first reached the South Pole in 1911, just over 100 years ago. In 1958, roughly the same time the Soviets launched Sputnik and JFK ordered us into the space race, the very first scientific base was built at south pole. 

Antarctica is a place very new to human exploration. Much of it remains an unknown, unexplored, pristine wilderness, and we will be among the privileged few that have ever stepped upon its remarkable shores.

The mean annual temperature at the South Pole station is -56 degrees F. During the Austral Summer, temperatures may reach a balmy 0 degrees F. Being of relatively sound mind, we designed our UNLV trip itinerary to visit, not the walk-in sub-0 freezer of the south pole, but rather the warmer Antarctic Peninsula. The peninsula is above the Antarctic Circle and enjoys the well deserved reputation as the banana belt of the Antarctic, with temperature hovering around freezing in the Antarctic Summer and a mere -60F below in the winter – that’s t-shirt and shorts weather compared to the interior.

Antarctica has often been called a place of superlatives. It is just that – it’s a real over achiever of a continent.

Antarctic Facts:

  1. Antarctica is the earth's southernmost continent, containing the geographic South Pole
  2. Antarctica is the only continent without a native human population.
  3. Antarctica is the coldest continent with winter temperature reaching −89 °C (−129 °F).
  4. Antarctica is the driest continent and is considered the world’s largest desert. In the interior of the continent ,the average annual precipitation (in *equivalent of water) is only about 50 mm (about 2 in): less than the Sahara.  Along the coast, this increases but is still only about 200 mm (8 in) in *equivalent of water.
  5. Antarctica is the windiest continent with average wind 37 mph and katabatic winds of over 200 mph.
  6. It has the highest average elevation of all the continents: 7500 ft.
  7. About 98% of Antarctica is covered by ice that averages at least 1 mile in thickness, and the ice contains about 70 percent of the world's fresh water.
  8. There are no permanent human residents, but anywhere from 1,000 to 5,000 people reside throughout the year at the research stations scattered across the giant continent.
  9. Antarctica has only two native flowering plants making for an easy Antarctic Botany final exam.
  10. It is the fifth-largest continent in area, and is about the size of North America.
  11. Antarctica is owned by no one and everyone. In 1961, the international Antarctic Treaty was signed, and it designated Antarctica as a world park for peace, scientific exploration, and research. The international governing body does not officially recognize any country’s claim of land. No mineral or oil exploration, no mining or drilling and no military activity is allowed. 

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